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Last year’s drug war thriller Sicario was universally praised for its cinematography. Much of that credit goes to Sicario’s DP Roger Deakins, one of the most respected cinematographers working today.
One of Sicario’s standout scenes follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) on a van convoy to pick up a drug kingpin. It’s a vehicular sprint from the U.S. to Juarez, Mexico and back again. Tensions rise as threats loom around her and the rest of the convoy. The camera work conveys disorientation, claustrophobia, and the increasing threat of the Mexican drug cartel as Macer and her allies race through the streets. (Spoilers follow for the film’s first 30 minutes.)
From a shot standpoint, we can roughly divide the twelve minute sequence into two acts. Act one runs for nine minutes, a slow build of anxiety and scene setting as the convoy travels through Juarez. Act two is the climax; for the final three minutes Macer and her allies are stuck in traffic at the U.S. border. The team intercepts bandits preparing for an ambush and takes them out. Each act has a different objective and resulting shot structure; we’ll breakdown each separately.
Before the convoy sequence begins, we’ve followed Macer’s journey closely; we’ve learned about her character and see her talent as an FBI agent. Yet the convoy into Juarez presents a challenge and shock to her system. Macer has to adjust quickly as external threats surround her.
The cinematography thus balances two goals. It wants the audience to associate and sympathize with Macer’s “fish out of water” perspective. It also has to show the grave threat of the Mexican drug cartel. To do so, Deakins uses three main shot types: wide helicopter or vehicle-based shots, point of view shots from Macer’s perspective, and reaction shots of Macer.
Wide exterior shots are boilerplate for virtually any action-heavy film sequence; they help orient the audience. Sicario intersperses them through the sequence to clarify direction and flesh out the Juarez setting.
Deakins emphasizes realism and immersion over showiness here. It’s suggested that many of the sequence’s highest angle, ultra wide shots originate from actual helicopters monitoring the operation. Several shots add diegetic sounds of helicopter blades into the sound mix. In the most heavy-handed example, Deakins transitions from a clean helicopter shot to an actual helicopter sliding into frame.
Several vehicle shots are taken from a locked down, fixed position. The effect makes the camera jump and shake as the convoy navigates through hills and bumps on the road. It’s a small touch, but the more the audience feels the road, the more they sympathize with what Macer’s going through.
Almost every wide exterior shot is taken from a high angle with the horizon high in frame or missing entirely. This emphasizes the vulnerability of Macer and her team. And the camera rarely reveals detail beyond what the convoy can see. Deakins takes an otherwise expansive shot and makes it feel claustrophobic and oppressive.
Progressively higher angles can deepen the emotional impact. Deakins uses the highest angles to ramp up tension with the convoy at its most vulnerable. As the vans stop deep in Juarez to pick up their target, the camera pans high over a barbed wire fence to the vehicles below (top left).
As the convoy gets trapped crossing the border, we get a panning helicopter shot angled almost straight down at the cars below (top right, bottom). Row after row of cars fly by, none with distinguishing features. There’s no way to distinguish allies from possible threats, ratcheting up the tension.
Deakins uses many shots from Macer’s perspective within the van. Several are traditional POV shots where the camera directly assumes Macer’s sight line.
The camera shoots from other vantage points in the van, yet the camera mostly follows where Macer looks. It’s effectively a “modified” POV shot. It increases the threat level given such a fragmented and limited viewpoint. In the above example, as an escort car speeds by, she looks left to watch it pass. The camera follows suit.
There are also many reaction shots of Macer herself. Both POV and reaction shots help the audience sympathize more with Macer’s situation. As with the wider external shots, Deakins adds important details to maximize emotional impact.
Here we see the camera pan from what Macer’s looking at directly to Macer’s subsequent reaction. Deakins uses this panning technique several times during the convoy sequence.
There’s sparse camera coverage as well. POV and reaction shots heavily repeat angles. Most shots are taken at what appears to be a consistent 35mm focal length. That makes sense given the film’s tech specs; interviews with Deakins confirm Sicario was shot single camera with Arri/Zeiss Master Primes.
The repeated use of slow pans, angles and focal lengths over the nine minute act adds to the sequence’s immersion. And though the technique could arguably make the audience “too comfortable”, what actually unfolds inside the frame ramps up our fears.
Above are four modified POV shots of Macer looking over at Mexican “consultant” Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The first (top left) has Macer staring down at Alejandro’s hands. The soft cradle of the gun foreshadows the danger ahead. Alejandro is set up as the seasoned veteran of this operation, and he’s already on alert. We return to this same shot of Alejandro several times. It subtly changes over time.
It’s a small detail, but in a successive shot (top right) notice how Alejandro for the first time grips the door handle. It might just be because of the bumps on road, or it could be him tensing up.
As the convoy pauses in traffic (bottom left), Alejandro adjusts his glasses from the sweat. Again there’s multiple interpretations from this action; perspiration from the heat, nervousness, or both. The camera then shift its focus further back to show several missing person flyers outside on the blue wall. It’s a smart way to underline Juarez’s danger.
Finally, the convoy stops to pick up the prisoner (bottom right). The color contrast makes the blurred out gunman outside the van pop.
The camera frames Alejandro similarly between shots. However, it layers on details to add tension: the squeeze of a gun, a gripped handle, a glass adjustment, and a gunman outside.
As noted earlier, act two represents a change in screenplay and resulting action. At this point the convoy team in stuck in traffic and realize a bandit attack is inevitable. The cinematography shifts gears in tandem.
It’s now less about pure tension, and more capturing the brutality, horror, and shock of violence onscreen. For the first time we readily leave Macer’s perspective to show others taking action around her.
As act two begins, for the first time we see a POV shot from Alejandro’s perspective instead of Macer’s. Beforehand we get a reaction shot of him scanning adjacent traffic for possible threats; Macer being pushed almost completely off the frame is our visual cue to key into Alejandro. The camera then flips to his POV, panning to follow his gaze as he spots a suspicious car.
Interest is shifting away from Macer to the rest of the convoy and the bandits outside the van. Deakins appears to lean now on a slightly longer focal length; it reinforces the effect of Alejandro and the rest of the convoy “locking in” on sources of danger.
Moments later the camera leaves the van entirely to capture the threat much closer. This doesn’t mean a complete loss of perspective, but Deakins has loosened up his “only from the van POV” for better coverage and clarity.
We’re back to a rare shot of the entire van from the front. The front passenger agent Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan) unlocks his door. One hand is on his M16, ready to fire. With the actual shootout moments away the shot orients the audience to who’s in the van and where the threats are.
Moments later the camera pans past a bandits’ car up close (top left). After a brief reaction shot of Alejandro, Deakins then moves inside the bandits’ car, panning between the passengers, revealing their firepower (top right, bottom). While still measured, both pans are the largest, most kinetic camera movement in the sequence so far. The motion foreshadows the action to follow.
The convoy team is now out of their vehicles to confront the bandit cars. For the first time in the sequence, the camera uses a dolly (or steadicam) push in as it faces the bandits. Macer and the van remain behind the camera.
Likewise, for the flipped perspective (camera facing the van, bandits behind) the camera pulls out. Both actions mirror the motion of the convoy team. The audience moves as they do, adding immersion.
Deakins then repeats the push in twice on a now standing, armed bandit to reinforce this effect.
A split second before a bandit raises his gun and the convoy opens fire, we finally jump back to a clear POV shot from Macer’s perspective in the van. It’s a shot that runs only for about a second, but it reorients the audience; Macer has a clear view of the horror about to unfold at both bandit cars.
Gunfire commences and the convoy team kills everyone in the first vehicle. Deakins wants to deliver as much emotional impact as possible when the bullets start flying; we jump to a perspective within the bandit’s vehicle as everyone is shot. Blood splatters everywhere. The camera rapidly pans to capture each passenger getting hit. It’s effectively a POV from a bandit’s perspective as he’s executed; brutal stuff.
Moments later the second bandit car is also shot apart as the bandits make a move. Again the occupants are killed, but this time Deakins cuts to Macer’s POV. We’re already familiar with the ugliness of the first bandits’ death, and now we have to experience it from Macer’s shocked and powerless perspective.
To amplify the emotional stakes, the camera follows up each execution-style shooting with Macer’s shocked reaction. Macer blurts out what probably much of the audience is thinking: “What the f**k are we doing?”
As Deakins noted to Variety, good cinematography matches a film’s tone and thematic elements. Sicario‘s convoy to Juarez is a near perfect example of this. It’s a dark, gritty, and realistic film, and every shot in this sequence reinforces that feeling. The tension builds, and we’re immersed in a claustrophobic, threatening world. It’s one of the biggest factors to keep the audience invested for the rest of the film.